Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Fish

Somewhere around a mile and a half it stops hurting. The muscles in my chest and legs loosen. My breath sinks into my low back. My abdominal muscles wake up, engage, and lift my feet from the earth. The chatter of my brain quiets and the swirling chaos of my heart calms. There is just the crunch of my sneakers on gravel. The sighing in and out of my breathing.

Today, I had just arrived at that lovely meditative moment when I saw a silver flash in the river to my right. It was a medium-sized fish, struggling to swim. It was flipped onto one side, trying to dive, but popping back to the surface, ultimately succeeding only in propelling itself weakly in smaller and smaller tortured circles.

I stood on the shore fighting the urge to wade in and touch it.
Because I can’t resist death?
Because if I could see the wound on the underside I could understand something?
Because I could soothe it? Because I could soothe it. Because I could help. 

How could I soothe a fish? How could I think I could help it die?

I have held many animals and even a few people as they died. Sometimes I was calm and present. Sometimes I was a wailing mess. Perhaps, sometimes I was soothing. But I am certain that I never once helped. In every death I have witnessed, someone left. Alone. And I stayed behind.

I felt sad about the fish. And suddenly I couldn’t stand on the shore alone and watch him go. I turned back to the path and ran. I thought, “Murders. People who fish are bad.” And then I ran past some of those bad people. A man in a blue hat adjusted his line then leaned back and turned his face toward the cloudy sky and smiled as if it were sunny. The old dog lying next to him watched him closely, tail thumping the ground. A woman showed a little girl how to cast. She smiled at me as I passed, stroked the little girl’s hair. The little girl proudly thrust the pink fishing pole toward me. “It’s got Barbie on it!” she chirped.

And I thought of this:
Every single being is driven by the desire to suffer less. There is no recipe. We are, each of us, improvising our own unique alchemy in the laboratory of our particular and peculiar pain.

I don’t think this is profound. I’m sure others have said the same long before me and far more eloquently. Frankly, I’m not even sure it makes much sense in the context of a woman’s desire to ease the death throes of a fish, nor does it offer any clarity on whether or not fishing for pleasure is a morally defensible pastime.

But it stayed with me as I ran and it helped me feel the pleasure of simple aliveness in my body. And it made me think about the day when that aliveness will go, and I will go with it. And I wondered who would try to soothe me. Who would try to help?

I hope, whoever they are, that they won’t stand too long on the lonely shore after I have gone. I hope they fill their lungs and run on.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


You do not have to be good. 
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. 
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves. 
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…

                                                                                    -- Mary Oliver 

She’s telling me everything and anything – how she taught her granddaughter to make biscuits, where she gets her hair done, where every single member of her family lives and what the weather is like in each of these places. It may be a stereotype, but it’s also true: Texans talk a lot. 

Then I hit the sweet spot. You know the one, right in the middle of the arch, the place where all our decades of standing and walking and dancing live. She stops mid-sentence. She leans back in the chair and closes her eyes. I watch as the infusion center and everything that goes along with it drop away. She takes a deep breath and sighs, “Oh, Baby-girl,* that feels so good. That makes a body feel necessary.”

Necessary. Makes a body feel necessary? 

This is not the first time I’ve heard this phrase since moving to Texas, but it floors me every time. What does that mean? Is your body ever unnecessary?

I consult my pal. A born and bred native Texan, she’s the go-to gal for all my stupid Jersey girl questions about this strange new home of mine. Is this a thing people say? She laughs kindly (as she usually does when I have such a query). Yes, she’s heard people say this all her life. She lays her accent on just a little thicker. “It makes sense, darlin’, when you’re sick for a long time and in pain, yes, a body can feel unnecessary – useless, not good.” 

Ah, yes. Necessary=useful=good. 

This is the equation we all know. This is the equation we all use. This is the terrible equation that keeps you separate from what Mary Oliver calls, “the soft animal of your body.” 

I want to smash this equation to bits with my soon-to-be-arthritic hands and stomp it to dust with my sore and tired feet. I want to stop using it myself to goad my 40 year-old knees to run just one mile further, to measure the sag of the skin on my upper arms, to tally the number of colds I get this year compared to last. 

I want my clients and my loved ones and everyone I know to stop using it because it’s a lie. 

I want to scream from a mountaintop: 

Four of our five senses reside in our head, so I guess it makes sense that we think that’s where it’s at. Taste, smell, sight, hearing, all in your head. But touch…aah, touch is everywhere. The vast majority of information coming into your brain, the stuff that is forming your conscious and unconscious life, is coming from your sense of touch (feeling) inside and outside of your body.

The surface of your skin is the surface of your brain – embryologically, physiologically. Those “gut” feelings? Those are actual neurological feelings from your enteric nerves, evolutionarily-speaking the oldest (and wisest?) part of your nervous system.

Your body is never unnecessary, never useless. Even a body wracked with illness and pain is a good body.

And every body is a potential source of joy, of pleasure, of connection.

Place your hand over your heart. Feel that? You are alive.
Touch your skin. That’s you!
Touch someone else’s skin. Do it! (Why should we massage therapists have all the fun?)
No words are needed.
Go press the surface of your brain against the surface of someone else’s brain. Gently. Sweetly. 
Hi, you. This is me. This is your body. This is my body. Isn’t this good? Isn’t this necessary?

*On a totally unrelated note, everything really is bigger in Texas, including the people. In Austin, my diminutive stature and dark complexion lead almost all of these fair, statuesque folks to two assumptions: First, that I am very young (I am not), and second, that I speak Spanish (I do not). I find both these things irrationally flattering.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On The Watery Nature of Kindness

“It helps me to think of kindness as water,” I wrote. 
My friend shook her head. (This exchange took place via email, but I could feel the headshake in her reply.) 
"This makes it sound like you have a hard time thinking about kindness.” 
“But…I do."

I do have a hard time thinking (and writing) about kindness. 
Almost immediately I feel hokey and preachy and self-conscious. 
Self-consciousness leads to worry. Do I receive and give enough kindness? How much is enough?) 
Worry leads to judgment. What about other people? Is kindness the fundamental nature of the human species? No, look at all the horrible things we do to each other. We’re awful. I’m awful! No hope! No hope… 
Seriously, ask me to meditate on kindness and in 10 minutes you will find me a quivering mess, miserably clinging to her blankets like one of Harlow’s poor little monkeys. 

So it helps me to think of kindness as water. 

We need it to live and thrive.

Kindness is not simply a single element, but a molecule – a combination of ingredients held together by simple, but powerful bonds.

It’s a “universal solvent.” In my experience, virtually everything dissolves (maybe not completely, but mostly) in the presence of kindness.

Kindness can change states, sometimes quite rapidly. Under certain conditions it may be fluid, solid, ethereal. It’s impossible to hold in one’s hands.

Over the years of our lives the average rainfall of kindness we experience varies. We’ve all known times of drought – desolate, tan, and withered times, green, lush, plentiful times, times of excess when it felt we might lose our footing – get swept away or drown in the floods of giving and loving.

Kindness can be a result of our environment. Perhaps you live and work in a place where the climate is predictable. Perhaps there are wild swings in the atmosphere. Your home and work may even exist in completely different microclimates – just a mile or two apart. You thrive in one place; shrivel in the other.

On balance, there’s more kindness on this earth than not. According to the U.S. Geological Survey website: “About 71 percent of the Earth's surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth's water. But water also exists in the air as water vapor, in rivers and lakes, in icecaps and glaciers, in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers, and even in you and your dog.” Even in the driest places on Earth there is water and therefore life is possible. So, too, even in the darkest corners of human history, even in the places that seem made of evil, human kindness exists.

Water and kindness travel in ways you cannot see or predict.

Exhale on a chilly day and you may see the water vapor of your breath for a moment, but it quickly dissipates and becomes invisible. Pour water into the soil and it will be wicked away before your eyes. Where has it gone? Will it stay where you put it?

Some of it may.

I pour water into a glass for someone I love. Some of it nourishes that body, helps it thrive. Some of it leaves. It is breathed out of their face. It seeps out of their skin. (Look at my sweet one exuding watery kindness!) Some of the water doesn’t even make it into my beloved. During the act of pouring some sloshes onto the floor (I can be very sloppy), maybe splashes the person sitting nearby.

Some evaporates right into the air. The molecules disperse. They soar into the atmosphere. They gather with other droplets from other sources and high above me form clouds that grow heavy, wet. It is possible that it may rain right here in my own town, but more likely, those droplets (at least some of them) will travel miles and miles before they shower down in a far away place.

It helps me to think of kindness like water. 
It helps me to remember with every sip I take in to feel nourished.  
It helps me to remember when I sigh with the satisfaction of my slaked thirst that those same molecules leave my body. With every breath I can send kindness out into the world. And perhaps, a million miles away, someone parched and desperate may turn her face toward the sky as the first drops of rain begin to fall…